You can’t beat this intimate 14th century village for convenience and scenery.
Saint Martin de Belleville is the most civilized way to access the Three Valleys without having to re-mortgage your dacha. It’s aptly named; villes don’t get much more belle than this. The town square boasts a church built in the 14th century facing a classic French town hall. Tricolors, European flags – no Union Jack. This isn’t just a ski-resort, it’s a fully formed French village. People actually live here and it is all the more pleasant for it.
This authenticity differentiates Saint Martin de Belleville from the other access points to the vast Three Valleys ski area. I hired my equipment from Ski Set, which rather than being nestled next to “Ski This” or “Slide the Other”, was in a genuine parade of local shops, including a baker and a butcher. Can you imagine what the oligarchs in Courchevel would make of this – what, no Cartier shop?
That said, there’s plenty for the understated clientele of Saint Martin de Belleville to spend their money on. The three Michelin-starred La Bouitte is one excellent place to part with some cash. It is run by the father and son team of Rene and Maxime. Both are self-taught and can do phenomenal things with the Savoie ingredients they grew up with. My char fish was apparently the first pulled out of a local lake this season – absolutely delicious.
The skiing from Saint Martin de Belleville is convenient as well as beautiful. Our accommodation – the Alp Hotel – was a mere 20 metres from the gondola. A long chairlift delivers you to a decision – Val Thorens (an unwise choice, in my view, until absolutely desperate for snow in April), Meribel, Courchevel or Les Menuires. As you might expect from the self-proclaimed "largest ski resort in the world" there is a huge variety and it pays to think carefully about where the best conditions will be. Angle of slope, snow, wind direction, sun: all make a big difference. At a time when total snowfall was approximately half that on an average year, our choice was all the more important.
On reflection our best option was Courchevel and a bit of off-piste at the top of a chairlift called the Creux Noirs. From the top, the ominous yellow and black skull and crossbones lured good skiers. Our decision to accept the challenge was helped by seeing a grey haired Ecole de Ski Francais instructor and his middle aged, and encouragingly, “middle skilled” clients embarking on the same off piste adventure.
Such warning signs suggest there is great skiing to be done, but do be careful, because you are on your own if things go wrong. We sidestepped up for a few minutes and were soon unable to see any ski installations – this was as close to backcountry skiing as we could have hoped to get without a ski guide. Wonderful.
Another fantastic day came courtesy of Gilles, a guide from the local ski school. He lead his charges to an area called La Masse – a slightly isolated part of Les Menuires with a fantastic “back bowl” providing innumerable lines to ski. Even five days after the latest snow, we were still able to find uncut powder.
The Three Valleys is huge and can cater for all tastes and levels. From the largest “Piou Piou” park (kids ski school) in Les Menuires to the famous couloirs of Courchevel. From party town Meribel to the ski bums in Val Thorens. Personally, I'd plump for the tranquility of Saint Martin de Belleville.
Even the piste back to Saint Martin de Belleville suits the town. A long, meandering, contemplative cruise home. Made all the better if you have stopped for a schnapps at the Corbeley bar about 3kms from home.
In the French Alps it is fairly rare for a 500-year-old village to have ski-in, ski-out hotels. I know of other lovely French villages – Samoens springs to mind – that also have access to skiing, but none with the convenience of Saint Martin de Belleville.
The brief for this “boys’ trip” was to provide 11 of us with great skiing without the hassle of a big resort, and at a cost that wouldn’t blow the family summer holiday budget.
The “does-what-it-says-on-the-tin” Alpine Answers - answered. As the name suggests, they sort out everything required for a ski holiday from flights, transfers, hotels, guides/lessons.
Unless you are an oligarch, have a young family in tow, or are more interested in partying than skiing, Saint Martin de Belleville is the perfect spot for some late season powder.
NEED TO KNOW
Telephone: 020 7801 1080 or visit alpineanswers.co.uk
The Alp Hotel
Telephone: 0033 4 79 08 92 82. Or visit alphotel.fr